There’s no telling how many guns we have in America—and when one gets used in a crime, no way for the cops to connect it to its owner. The only place the police can turn for help is a Kafkaesque agency in West Virginia, where, thanks to the gun lobby, computers are illegal and detective work is absurdly antiquated.
…There is no national database of guns. We have no centralized record of who owns all the firearms we so vigorously debate, no hard data regarding how many people own them, how many of them are bought or sold, or how many even exist.
…Federal law, thanks to the NRA, since 1986: No searchable database of America’s gun owners. So people here have to use paper, sort through enormous stacks of forms and record books that gun stores are required to keep and to eventually turn over to the feds when requested. It’s kind of like a library in the old days—but without the card catalog. They can use pictures of paper, like microfilm (they recently got the go-ahead to convert the microfilm to PDFs), as long as the pictures of paper are not searchable. You have to flip through and read. No searching by gun owner. No searching by name.
…The vast majority of the gun records linking a gun to its owner are kept back at the various licensed dealers, the Walmarts, Bob’s Gun Shops, and Guns R Us stores dotting America’s landscape.
We have more gun retailers in America than we do supermarkets, more than 55,000 of them. We’re talking nearly four times the number of McDonald’s. Nobody knows how many guns that equals, but in 2013, U.S. gun manufacturers rolled out 10,844,792 guns, and we imported an additional 5,539,539.
…Matching a firearm to a person—tracing a gun—is therefore a needle-in-a-haystack proposition that depends on Form 4473. To the people at the tracing center, locating that document is the whole object of the game. It’s the holy grail. The form has the gun purchaser’s signature on it, his or her address, place and date of birth, height, weight, gender, ethnicity, race, and, sometimes, Social Security number (“Optional, but will help prevent misidentification,” says box 8).
It’s a jackpot of information that could help solve a murder case, or exonerate an innocent guy on death row, or, as happens frequently, open unexpected investigative leads.
…By law, every gun dealer in America has to keep a “bound book” or an “orderly arrangement of loose-leaf pages” (some have been known to use toilet paper in protest) to record every firearm’s manufacturer or importer, model, serial number, type, caliber or gauge, date received, date of sale. This record corresponds to the store’s stack of 4473s, which some clerk has to go dig through in order to read you the information from the form. Or he can fax it.
…This is the maddening, inefficient way gun tracing works, and there is no effort afoot to make it work any better. For all the talking we do about imposing new limits on assault weapons, or stronger background checks, nobody talks about fixing the way we keep track—or don’t keep track—of where all the guns are.